Appearance is all

When it comes to shopping, customers will always judge a product by its packet. Intelligent pack designs and store layouts can serve to drive sales of individual products or to increase a store’s turnover

Marketers know that, when it comes to shopping, most people ignore the idea that it is wrong to judge things by the way they look. Fortunately for packaging designers, shoppers are more likely to follow Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”.

Simon Sholl, planning and development director at packaging and brand consultants SiebertHead, says: “Packaging is the only medium that tells consumers what a product is. It provides them with a bundle of emotional and rational messages that enables them to make an informed choice – without packaging, how do you choose between identical-looking margarines?”

Not accident but design

Products are packaged to persuade consumers to buy them. Other in-store design features can also serve to increase purchases, however. Tactics from stocking two products with complementary functions on shelves adjacent to each other, to imposing store layouts that make people want to browse for longer, all persuade consumers to part with extra cash. As with any kind of design, in-store design is not just about making things pretty or eyecatching. No matter how good a product, display or shop looks, if function has not been taken properly into account then the money spent on it has been wasted because it will not work.

The fact that retail design does work is there for all to see. Chris Dewar Dixon, managing director of retail and branding specialist Four IV – which recently updated traditional English fashion and accessories brand Mulberry – says: “Retailers wouldn’t continue to invest in store design, display and packaging if it had no effect on the bottom line.”

Examples of its effectiveness are often puzzling at first. Sholl says: “When we changed Phileas Fogg snacks from rectangular to pyramid packs, sales doubled without any advertising or other marketing activity.” But why?

He continues: “Blue Parrot Café – Sainsbury’s range of healthy kid’s products – is attracting customers not only to the brand but to Sainsbury’s, as the sole outlet.” Again, why?

A closer look at looks

The fact that these product designs are successful is largely the result of painstaking research, according to Phil Lawder, marketing director at international design network Brown KSDP. “The secret of creating great design is insight. It demands new approaches to understanding consumers. Semiotics theory – understanding how people react unconsciously to symbols; ethnographic research – observing or even participating in product use in the bar or the kitchen; and simple in-store observation – learning how people behave in front of a fixture. All of these provide additional insights, fuelling design that connects with consumers and greatly increases the chance of a sale. Design, in the end, is focused creativity. The sharper the focus, the more confident the designers and the more effective the design.”

Parker Williams Design partner Tamara Williams worked on the packaging design for Sainsbury’s Blue Parrot Café range, alongside research company Tangible Branding. She says: “Sainsbury’s came to us with a concept and we had to find the design that best communicated that concept.” The idea was for a product range that would appeal to parents because it contains good quality, healthy ingredients, and yet consists of foods that children love. Williams’ task was to convey all this through one design.

Happily for Williams, she and her research colleagues had the considerable resource of the Sainsbury’s Reward Card database to draw on. She says: “The old ‘ABC’ categories would have been useless. Using the Reward Card data we were able to assess the likes, dislikes and patterns of behaviour of Sainsbury’s customers – the people who would be buying the Blue Parrot range – from which we could put together shopper profiles. However, I find that in packaging design it’s always useful to observe behaviour for yourself – to go and watch the shoppers shopping.”

The result of all this invasion of consumer privacy is bright, bold, clearly branded packaging that emphasises the benefits of the food to parents and the taste of the food to children. It’s also not too childish for parents – a cartoon parrot was rejected early on – and not too serious for children. Williams explains: “Consumers are more sophisticated these days. Packaging needs to describe the kind of product that people want, rather than just saying what the product does.”

Another instance of this – which Parker Williams was also involved in – was the Sainsbury’s Be Good To Yourself range of low-fat foods. This was a product that was doing well, but whose performance improved after a redesign. Williams says: “The product was the same – high-quality, low-fat, healthy food. But by using more enticing photography, we increased the range’s ‘aspirational’ nature, promoting the quality aspect and emphasising that the food is just as tasty as – if not tastier than – other ready meals, with the added advantage of being good for you.”

Of course, many design agencies don’t have the luxury of access to data as developed as that from Sainsbury’s Reward Cards. They may use focus groups or other research methods to test out their packaging ideas. Roger Jackson, director of quantitative research company Heawood Research, says: “Research can become complex, and many companies are put off by this and the expense involved. But often marketers forget the importance of packaging design. It is the long-distance runner of marketing tools – other forms tend to appear in short bursts. Packaging can appear in ads, on supermarket shelves every day, and is still pushing the product and brand at the point at which a consumer uses it, so it’s well worth investing in research to make sure it’s effective.”

Good packaging can only serve its purpose if it is well-displayed, and the right position in store may also increase sales of complementary products. Chris White at Dragon Brand Consulting says: “Cross-category merchandising can influence consumer behaviour. Soft drinks can be sold with snacks, sauces with pasta, and so on. But retailers need to be more innovative in this area. Why not stock male grooming products with beer, for instance, to overcome those male perceptions that grooming is only for women?”

Williams agrees that retailers could work harder in this field: “I feel that good packaging design is undermined by a lack of creativity in merchandising. Why not put salads and fresh parmesan next to ready meals and alleviate the guilt of being too lazy to cook?”

Shelving plans

Then there’s the matter of the retail environment itself: the place that should be enticing shoppers to stay and look around, rather than pushing them away or hounding them like an over-enthusiastic shop assistant. Andrew Doyle of HMI, which has undertaken research in this area for Marks & Spencer, says: “Most supermarkets and shops are like warehouses and most food and drink manufacturers think that design ends with the pack, and not how it is presented to the consumer. Shelves will be the next exciting area of in-store development. Manufacturers are beginning to see shelves as an extension of their products. Already, Boots has backlighting to highlight transparent packs and Tesco has green shelves for its organic range.”

Laura Haynes, director of brand consultant Appetite, has been working with convenience store chain Spar to improve the environment of its stores. Spar is not the kind of retailer normally associate with spending too much time on interior decoration. Haynes says: “Spar wanted to reposition itself. We started by finding out customers’ expectations. To do this, we asked them to produce a wish list of what they wanted from a convenience store. They wanted local character, extra services that weren’t necessarily retail, fresh good quality produce and a light, bright lively environment.”

Spar’s new look is now being rolled out, with a cleaner, fresher feel, emphasising the benefits of the “big” Spar brand, through investment in its premises, while meeting the needs of the local community. Only time, and sales figures, will tell whether Spar has managed to convert its customers’ wish list into a workable reality.

Confucius claimed that: “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue,” but he didn’t have to rush through supermarkets making snap supper decisions. If he were around today, he might find that the eye-catching packaging and user-friendly layouts at his local stores are more of a boon than a deception.

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